Selected articles from
VOL. 21  NO. 2  FALL 2008

A Mind for Murdergate

"Psychic clues" audaciously altered
in new edition of Renier memoir

By Gary P. Posner

In the opening paragraph of my Summer 2005 review of "psychic detective" Noreen Renier's memoir, A Mind for Murder (published in paperback by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin), I complimented the book as "an entertaining adventure . . . and the writing isn't half-bad." I then added, "But are the author's 'psychic' claims even half-true?" Much of the remainder of the review offered my reasons for being highly skeptical of the book's veracity.

Reissued earlier this year by a new publisher, at first glance this "Expanded, Revised, and Updated Edition" appears essentially the same as the original, save for a larger format and two chapters being replaced with two new ones (on the Laci Peterson case and another in Montana). However, closer inspection reveals a number of small changes, including one so audacious as to defy any imaginable innocent explanation.

The two jettisoned chapters focused upon Renier's legal battles with skeptic John Merrell, which TBS Report has chronicled extensively over the past two decades. As we reported in Summer 2007, these chapters, which accused Merrell of such misconduct as lying in court, violated Renier's 1992 settlement agreement with Merrell and prompted Berkley/Penguin (which Merrell had initially sued along with Renier and her co-author and editor) to withdraw the book. Per that 1992 agreement, neither Renier nor Merrell was permitted to again publicly disparage the other.

Resurrected this past April by Hampton Roads Publishing of Charlottesville, Virginia (Renier's hometown, to which she returned in 2004 after residing for nearly two decades in Florida), the cover contains a new tagline proclaiming Renier as "Court TV's Psychic Detective," which she certainly had been until the first of this year, when Court TV revamped itself into truTV and Psychic Detectives vanished from its website's program listings (the series reemerged recently with new episodes and time will tell if Renier remains a featured attraction).

Mysteriously missing from the new cover is the name of Renier's co-author, Naomi Lucks, which had originally been nearly as prominent as Renier's! I suspect that Lucks' professional craftsmanship is largely responsible for the book's redeeming stylistic flair. The "Acknowledgments" also no longer mention Lucks, or the authors' original editor. The book is nothing close to a rewrite, so why would they no longer merit Renier's appreciation? A much more likely explanation is that, having been kept in the dark by Renier about her binding agreement not to trash Merrell in print and thus blindsided by his lawsuit, they wished to have nothing more to do with the book.

But unexpurgated from the "Acknowledgments" is a brief paragraph, no doubt confounding to most readers, thanking "my attorney . . . who tried my [1986] libel case against the skeptic," even though no mention remains anywhere else in the book about the case or the skeptic (Merrell). It is with mixed feelings that I realized that Renier's critical mention of yours truly had also been in one of the two purged chapters.

This new edition presented Renier with an opportunity to correct any known factual errors that had inadvertently found their way into the first printing. For example, in Chapter 9, the man in Houston went missing not in 1996, as the book indicated, but 1998. Renier has even posted a relevant June 8, 1999, Houston Chronicle article on her website, pinpointing his disappearance to the previous November. And in her chapter on the 1994 Williston, Florida, case (see Fall 1996, Winter '96-97, Summer '97), she dated that disappearance to "April" rather than March 24. I had pointed out both errors in my review (with which Renier was familiar), yet they remain uncorrected.

Numerous other corrections -- or at least changes -- have been made throughout the book. A few examples: an instance of "psychologist" was changed to "parapsychologist," "Cindy" (a murder victim) to "Sally," "Burrville" Police Department to "Hampton," "Dennis" (a police sketch artist) to "Mike."

But then there's the one "correction" that stands out among all others -- at least to the handful of people who know the case intimately and have compared the two accounts microscopically. In his historic series of interviews with a disgraced American ex-president, David Frost cajoled Richard Nixon into acknowledging, with regard to the ammunition that his Watergate-related conduct (including the doctoring of transcripts) had provided his detractors, "I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish." Chapter 16 of Noreen Renier's reissued memoir contains such a sword.

That chapter discusses the case of a small airplane that had gone missing in northern Massachusetts in January 1984. One of the four passengers, Arthur Herbert, was the brother of the ex-wife of an FBI agent, and both his sister and the agent offered sworn testimony on Renier's behalf in her 1986 libel trial against John Merrell, crediting Renier with having provided clues instrumental in locating the wreckage, though the brother was found dead along with the others.

In Chapter 16, on page 146 of the new edition, while reciting the series of clues that she had offered the then-missing man's sister, Renier says (spelling, punctuation and ellipses are verbatim):

I saw two sets of numbers. Breathlessly, I repeated them to my client [Arthur Herbert's sister, Jessica]. I could feel they were important.

Now letters came into my head. "I see three letters," I said. "G, T, and O . . . they are significant . . . they could be initials of towns . . . they definitely have something to do with the location of the missing airplane."

Two pages later, in discussing the aftermath:

[T]he numbers I had given Jessica turned out to be longitude and latitude of the downed plane. And the letters? They were the initial letters of the names of two towns, Gardner and Templeton, whose outskirts connected in the area marked by the longitude and latitude. The "O" turned out to be the first letter of the name of the river that runs right next to the crash site.

Renier then goes on to say that the wreckage was ultimately located by Carl and Cheryl Wilber, a father and daughter who were following deer tracks through the snowy, dense woods. She further described the nature of the terrain as rocky with "towering hills" and "big gorges." Renier says that the Wilbers "couldn't help notice the [search] planes that had been circling overhead," implying that her numerical and alphabetical clues had pinpointed a precise tract in the Gardner-Templeton area, along a particular river, resulting in the Wilbers' decision to search there.

No wonder Renier enjoys a reputation, perhaps second only to Sylvia Browne's, as a world-renowned "psychic detective." But, in the laundry list of problems associated with Renier's telling of the story, buried among the dirty linen is the Nixonesque sword. From page 188 of the first edition's Chapter 16 (punctuation and ellipses are again verbatim):

Now letters came into my head. "I see three letters," I said. "H, D, and A . . . They are significant . . . They could be initials of towns . . . They definitely have something to do with the location of the missing airplane."

And what towns and/or river did those clues -- presumably the actual ones she had provided -- point towards? Renier didn't specify, saying simply, "They were the initial letters of the names of three towns whose outskirts all connected in the area marked by the longitude and latitude." Not three towns associated with this crash! But John Merrell has an idea as to where "H, D, and A" may have come from -- he suspects Renier may have made the same "non-psychic" mistake I did!

When presenting this case in my chapter on Renier in Psychic Sleuths (Prometheus Books, 1994), one of the news clippings that I referenced (about an onboard "fire") actually pertained to one of two other small-plane crashes that had occurred within a 30-mile radius in the same general time frame as the "G, T, and O" crash. As Merrell explains on his website devoted to the book, "If one examines a map of the area you can draw a virtually straight line from east to west from Hubbardston to Dana Center to Amherst for the Barre crash. . . . And for the crash near the Monadnock area there is the Ashuelot River, Dublin and Hadley." He also notes that, unlike this case's crash site, "Both of [the others] were near mountainous terrain, rock slabs, and gorges," matching Renier's description. [Note: Merrell's website was revamped in early 2010, and much material removed, in conjunction with an apparent cease-fire with Noreen Renier.]

Even if her clues actually had been "G, T, and O," would they have mattered? As reported in the press, the troubled plane had been witnessed to have gone down about a half mile from the Gardner airport nearly two weeks earlier and the Wilbers had set out in that direction for that reason alone. They never saw any circling search planes, and only in 2006, when Merrell tracked them down for an interview, did the pair first hear of Renier and her claims. Upon reading her version of events (including her "psychic" visions of various nearby landmarks, the rocky, gorge-filled terrain with "towering hills," the Wilbers' reason for searching where they did, etc.), Carl Wilber told Merrell, "I don't think she got anything right." Said Cheryl, "It makes me feel terrible that somebody took advantage of the situation. . . . She made up a lot of stuff."

Here's something else that Renier had made up -- though Jessica Herbert believed it (or at least pretended to) when she offered the following at deposition in advance of the libel trial: "Noreen said that [my brother] had survived, the girl had survived . . . and that he had taken her out of the plane, set her in a safe place and gone for help. [She also] described how he had tried to get down the side of the big hill and sat down because of the broken leg." According to Merrell, in conjunction with Renier's own dramatic courtroom testimony, Herbert's rendition of this selfless act of heroism, when read into evidence during the trial, brought two of the jurors to tears. Yet the scenario is sheer fantasy. The NTSB had determined that all four occupants died immediately upon impact, and the woman's decapitated body couldn't even be removed until the mangled metal was cut apart.

There had already been myriad reasons, as I and other critics have extensively documented, for taking such "psychic" claims with a gargantuan grain of salt. But the newly revealed Watergate-worthy doctoring of "H, D, and A" to "G, T, and O" in this case -- one of the most famous and vouched for in Noreen Renier's storied career -- should resign her to the fact that she has handed the world a sword, and that her credibility has now been unequivocally and forevermore impeached. Anyone care for relish?

A nearly identical version of this article appears in the Nov/Dec issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Major St. Petersburg Times article on TBS
prints malicious lies by demented "psychic"

A prominent profile of TBS in the "City Times" section of the August 8 St. Petersburg Times includes a series of malicious accusations against Gary Posner by unsuccessful “$1,000 Challenge” aspirant Virginia Levy. Posner had explained to reporter Emily Nipps that Levy had lied to her, but Nipps' journalistic effort omitted any mention that Levy's charges had been disputed by Posner.

Though TBS's documentary video shows Levy trying hard to win and having fun throughout, she told Nipps that Posner had treated her so appallingly that she purposely lost and left in a huff. In actuality, she hung around for an additional hour, doing a reading (from a newspaper photo and roadmap) in an effort to locate little Amanda Brown, who had gone missing just days earlier. Her predictions about that case turned out as off-base as her Challenge performance.

In the article, Levy calls the Challenge a "mockery" and a "scam." In truth -- a commodity now foreign to her -- she had called it fair and had praised Posner's professionalism. See here for our corrective Letter to the Editor.


Don Addis cartoon

Using divining rods and other time-tested tools of the trade, representatives from Tampa Ghost Watchers recently did some spirit-sleuthing at Dave's Aqua Lounge, where liquor bottles seem to mysteriously turn themselves around and the long-deceased prowl the premises. Member Mike Burton, brass dowsing rods dancing in hand, detected the spirit of "Margie," who tended bar there some 15 years ago before succumbing to cancer. "She looked pretty good for an elderly dead lady," said Burton. Pat Linse, co-founder (with Michael Shermer) of the Skeptics Society, explained how the ideomotor effect accounts for the movement of dowsing rods in the absence of perceptible hand motions. But she didn't explain how Margie could still look so fine.

(St. Pete. Times, July 27)

Wouldn't it be great if we could dispense with fossil fuels, nuclear power plants, and even windmills and solar panels, and create nuclear fusion -- the process that powers the sun -- in a beaker on our desks? That's pretty much what Rusi Taleyarkhan, in his headline-making 2002 research paper, claimed to have accomplished. Unlike the earlier, and largely discredited, "cold fusion" claims of Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, which they had announced at a press conference rather than in a scholarly article, Taleyarkhan published his startling findings in the peer-reviewed journal Science. But his claims are now in serious doubt as well. A Purdue University panel has found that in his follow-up paper published in Physical Review Letters, he falsely claimed that his 2002 work had been independently replicated, when in reality he had been extensively involved in those replication efforts.

(St. Pete. Times, July 19)

TBS Community and Media Appearances

On July 22, Chairman Terry Smiljanich was the invited speaker at a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of St. Petersburg. An audience of about forty members heard Terry speak about the mission and history of TBS, and about the importance of critical thinking. The guests were especially interested in stories of the various attempts to collect TBS's "$1,000 Challenge." Some questions were directed to tales of freaky coincidences in which members of the audience or their families had premonitions that came true or "psychic" predictions that became reality. Terry explained that these rare instances may have just been that -- coincidences -- and that it is human nature to remember the times predictions come true and forget the many times that they do not.

And on the following day, Gary Posner was one of Kathy Fountain's two guests on Your Turn (Ch. 13). The topic was faith healing, with special attention to tattooed Canadian Todd Bentley's raucous Lakeland crusade, which was drawing faithful and media from all over the world. Posner emphasized the difference between a claim/anecdote and the evidence required to substantiate it, and read from a recent Associated Press article about how the reporter had been unable to verify any of the healings from a list of 15 "cured" people that Bentley's ministry had distributed to the press.

Letter to the Editor

Editor:  I was reading your articles on psychic mediums James Van Praagh and George Anderson. I agree with Anderson that it is healthy to be a skeptic. But I really feel sorry for people like you who don't seem to have any belief at all that psychic communication is possible, including with the dead.

I have been psychic all of my life and am now learning how to give readings in my spare time, besides working as a self-employed paralegal. I have proven to people through e-mail readings that telepathic communication and life after death are real.

I am skeptical too, at times. I won't mention names, but I am very disappointed in a certain psychic [we suspect Sylvia Browne] who is often on TV. This person does not seem like a genuine psychic and gets very important information wrong, and people like this give psychics a bad name.

Humans are much more than mortal beings -- we are spiritual beings. The way I understand it is that we live in Mind. We are all connected. Once you can grasp and understand this, you begin to be aware of a higher level of consciousness and start to have mystical/psychic experiences that help you to believe even more.

Everything is actually psychic, since there is no such thing as solid matter -- even Einstein proved this. All that exists is a form of energy. I believe we are all psychic, but some people block it out with their belief that it is unreal.

--Sara Mitchell

Editor's note:  Our reply (in part): "We'd be happy to test you in a manner that could conceivably prove your psychic communications to be genuine rather than imaginary. For example, if you can truly communicate with a dead relative of a person whose relatives' names are unknown to you, the dead relative ought to be able to tell you his/her name and relationship to the person. So far, no psychic has ever been able to come up with that information, which should be infinitely simpler than doing a full reading." Her reply to us (in part):

I can only give the information that comes to me. Names are very difficult, but sometimes they come spontaneously. I am not sure about your testing, and I may think about that, but being tested by total skeptics who don't understand the science of Mind may not be the best way to go here. I want you to know that I can really sense your feeling of reality, and I respect it. I am just trying to open your mind here. I have nothing to gain except possibly the satisfaction that someone will wake up and realize that there is really something going on here that before they believed was impossible.

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